President Obama’s re-election strategy is focused on portraying himself as the defender of the forgotten American middle class. And, writes John Avlon, there are signs that this strategy is succeeding.
For the first time since the short-lived boost after the death of Osama bin Laden, a majority of Americans now approve of Obama’s job performance. He is beating the battered, but still presumed Republican nominee, Mitt Romney in a new Washington Post/ABC poll.
And crucially, the president is now seen as a better defender of the middle class.
The good news is coming at the right time. With the presidential election just eight months away, the Obama administration has been hobbled by persistent political polarisation and economic frustration.
The sky-high expectations that followed his inauguration have been met with disappointment among many supporters and something approaching hysteria among his opponents. The Tea Party-driven 2010 election landslide was just one sign of the head winds he was facing.
America is, after all, a centre-Right country. Twice as many people identify themselves as conservatives as consider themselves liberals. Bill Clinton, the only Democratic president to win re-election since Franklin D Roosevelt, never reached 50 per cent of the popular vote.
But the deepest driver of popular opinion is the economy — and even though the free-fall stopped months after Obama took office, unemployment grew for two years in the great recession.
During the last few months, it has dipped towards eight per cent, but it still remains higher than when the stimulus spending began. And no president since Roosevelt has been re-elected while presiding over such a rough economy.
The president’s saving grace is his personal approval rating — more than 70 per cent of Americans like him personally, even though his job approval ratings have averaged in the mid-40s for much of the past year.
As the economy has improved, those ratings have risen — we vote with our wallets here in the USA. But the biggest boost to the president’s fortunes has been the weakness of the Republican field and the cage fight mentality that has suffused the primary process.
The unexpected sweep of three caucus states by Rick Santorum on Tuesday was a sign of Romney’s weakness as the presumed Republican nominee.
Grassroots conservatives do not trust the sincerity of the former Massachusetts governor’s reversals on social issues ranging from abortion to gay rights. In contrast, former Senator Santorum has been a stalwart social conservative his entire career.
Romney salvaged something from the week last night, however, when he eked out a narrow win in the Maine caucus, finishing three per cent ahead of Ron Paul. His support was down from 52 per cent in 2008 to 39 per cent this year, but aides will be relieved he did not suffer a fourth successive defeat.
The surest sign of a grassroots enthusiasm gap has been the low turnout in primary states to date. Romney’s wins have come after blanketing the respective state with negative adverts attacking whoever his chief rival might be at the time.
The Romney campaign and its supporters spent more than $15?million (£9.5? million) to win Florida, with 93 per cent of the adverts in the final week being negative against Newt Gingrich.
This Death Star approach to campaigning does work, but it turns off many voters in the process. Romney has compounded his problems with a series of gaffes. There was his now notorious remark, intended to be a pitch to the middle class: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”
Combined with previous mis-statements about how “corporations are people” and the revelation that he pays only 14 per cent tax on investment income that generates more cash flow in a day than the average American family makes in a year, and it is clear how much of a problem he has in the making.
Even his Republican competitors have accused him of indulging in “vulture capitalism”.
Obama’s re-election strategy is focused on portraying himself as the defender of the forgotten American middle class. There are signs this is succeeding, if only in contrast. The Washington Post/ABC poll found that Obama is seen as a better champion of that group than Romney by 55 to 37 per cent.
Obama also has an edge among centrists and independent voters. Taken together, these two trends are essential — elections are won in America by whoever best connects with moderates and the middle class.
However, even with all the advantages of a sitting president, Obama faces a steep climb toward re-election — and is unlikely to win with the same electoral margin he did in 2008.
But the longer the ugly Republican nomination fight goes on, the better he looks. And as the president himself joked: “The odds of me being re-elected are much higher than the odds of me being elected in the first place.”